States conducting foreign interference against New Zealand could 'cause significant harm', spies refuse to discuss Jason Zhao case

A small number of states are conducting foreign interference against New Zealand, some with the potential to "cause significant harm", the acting head of one of the country's intelligence agencies says.

New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS) acting director-general Phil McKee says an effective way of countering foreign interference is by "shining a light on it" and ensuring New Zealanders are aware of the tactics being used by foreign governments.

However, he's not been willing to discuss an alleged NZSIS investigation into public servant Jason Zhao, who claims the agency has accused him of providing information to a foreign government. Zhao told Newshub it's a "racist attack", but McKee said ethnicity is never the basis for any of its investigations.

McKee was at Parliament on Monday morning for the Intelligence and Security Select Committee alongside Andrew Hampton, the director-general of the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB).

During his contribution, McKee said foreign interference and espionage are giving the NZSIS "increasing cause for concern".

"We only see a small number of states conducting interference against New Zealand, but some of those are persistent and have the potential to cause significant harm," he said.

McKee defined foreign interference as actions by a state that have the intentions to influence, disrupt or subvert New Zealand's national interests by "covert, corruptive, deceptive or threatening means". This doesn't include normal diplomatic activities or "upfront lobbying".

"Some of the most insidious examples concern harassment of ethnic communities in New Zealand who speak out against the actions of a foreign government.

"There are examples where information is collected on them and used to threaten whanau members in their own country. We have also seen attempts at foreign interference against university academics, local government officials and the media."

McKee said it shouldn't be tolerated and "has the intent of undermining our democracy and the values we hold here".

One effective way to counter it is "by shining a light on it", McKee said.

"If more people are aware of foreign interference, including the tactics used and the goals a foreign government is trying to achieve, then it will struggle to maintain a foothold in Aotearoa."

McKee later said foreign actors often try to create "long-term enduring partnerships"

"It might be to gain a relationship with someone thinking they will be put in an influential role or position in the future. That's what makes this hard in many cases," McKee said.

"One of the first things to do is if there is any persistent engagement that is out of normal, if it goes into questions that seem strange…come and talk to us."

He said it's not the intent of the service to create paranoia.

"These are acts of a foreign state. They are not the communities that we have in New Zealand. The communities in New Zealand are wonderful people who are always doing wonderful things for this country.

"This is purely around the state trying to, in a coercive, disruptive, in a covert way influence the behaviours of people in New Zealand, influencing their decision-making, influencing their views on particular topics."

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins, who chairs the committee, asked what advice members of the public could be given about what to look for and how to guard against that.

"In some cases, it can be quite obvious and quite forceful," McKee said, noting some individuals may be threatened if they say something against a foreign state there will be repercussions.

McKee said those people should let the NZSIS or police know.

"If suddenly you have representation or individuals who are being more persistent with their relationship with you, are asking strange questions, are asking what you do or what your role is or what you might be working on, it might be normal. But if it seems strange or it seems suspicious. Please let us know."

The NZSIS last year also published a "guide for identifying signs of violent extremism" to help New Zealanders "feel more confident about stepping forward, by explaining the kinds of behaviours or activities that concern us the most". An unclassified threat assessment will be published in the coming weeks.

Speaking to media afterwards, McKee said he couldn't name what states he was referring to when discussing foreign interference as a deliberate and considered process is needed before naming countries. This has happened in the past, for example when New Zealand linked a Chinese-state-sponsored entity to malicious cyber activity.

"The main point I am trying to make here today is foreign interference is real, it's unacceptable and it goes against the democratic principles that we hold dearly in this country and people need to be alert to the risk," McKee said.

Zhao case

Public Service Commission analyst Yuan Zhao, also known as Jason, earlier this month claimed the NZSIS had accused him of passing privileged information to the Chinese Government. He's been suspended from his job.

The China-born New Zealander vehemently denies it and told Newshub it was a "racist attack" on him. He complained about his treatment by the NZSIS and the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security (IGIS) is now inquiring into his complaint.

The NZSIS has previously refused to confirm or deny the accusations, saying it has "a long-standing approach of not discussing what may or may not be specific areas of operational focus or individuals".

McKee on Monday wouldn't comment specifically on the case. But when asked how he responded to the allegation of racism said: "New Zealand SIS does not investigate anyone based on their ethnicity, their culture or their religion."

He said IGIS investigating would be "absolutely the appropriate path and I am very confident with our people and what they do".

Hampton made the point the agencies operate "in secret for a reason".

"That is why we exist, to be able to access information that is not readily available...It's not because we are trying to obscure the fact we undertake this work. This work is what we do."

He said the Inspector-General "is really important to what we do and we welcome oversight by the Inspector-General".

Andrew Little, the Minister Responsible for the NZSIS, earlier this month said confirming what may or may not be areas of operational focus for the intelligence and security agencies "could be helpful to those who would seek to do harm to New Zealand".

The Chinese Embassy has said the allegations against Zhao have "an ulterior motive to smear and attack China".